Only a lunatic would have traded a seat at Hawthorn’s dining table for Brisbane’s trough last year, but right now Chris Fagan is probably as happy as a pig in mud, for he doesn’t have to suffer the scrutiny currently being applied to his former club.
That said, things aren’t especially rosy at the Gabba, particularly after a 52-point loss to Richmond.
But while on the scoreboard it’s a familiar result for Brisbane, there are distinct changes from previous years.
We actually have a defence
Fagan’s first port of call was rectifying a defence that leaked worse than Donald Trump’s White House administration. Last year, under Justin Leppitsch, the Lions conceded an average of 130.5 points per game – one of the worst returns in the competition’s history.
A month into Fagan’s tenure and that figure has been reduced by more than 20 points (108.2). While it’s still on the high side, Fagan is steering Brisbane in the right direction. He has achieved this by demanding more defensive running from his midfielders and by keeping his charges motivated for longer.
At times last year, players had clearly thrown in the towel. Fagan, at least, has got Brisbane staying competitive. Additionally, the Lions haven’t given up as many over-the-back goals this season – something of a staple under Leppitsch.
Fagan’s Hawthorn influence hasn’t gone unnoticed, ramping up the focus on forward pressure at the Lions. To reinforce its importance to his game plan, Fagan has deployed Mitch Robinson as a full-time forward and given opportunities to Jake Barrett to harass opposition defenders.
This has resulted in the Lions being ranked second in the AFL for tackles inside 50 (15.3 per game). The return of Allen Christensen in the coming weeks should only add to Brisbane’s ability to pressure the opposition.
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Smarter ball movement
Under Leppitsch, the Lions had plan A for moving the ball down the field – move it quickly by hand and create an overlap. To be fair to the three-time premiership centre-half back, Brisbane can look brilliant when this comes off.
The problem was, there was no other alternative when opposing teams shut down that run or set-up behind the ball. Brisbane tried playing possession football but they couldn’t actually advance the ball, so effectively they kept chipping it around until someone inevitably turned it over.
Fagan’s Lions can switch the ball and they can work the ball down the field through a series of short kicks and lead-up marks. While disposal efficiency is down compared to last year (72 per cent v 70.5 per cent), the Lions are getting ten more uncontested possessions and 20 more disposals per game this year and they are more inclined to kick than handball.
Injuries haven’t helped, but in previous years the hidings haven’t been limited to the senior side. Brisbane’s NEAFL side has struggled but this year they’re undefeated, boasting as many as 20 listed players per game. Emphasising this new-found depth is the fact that three of last year’s off-season trade targets – Ryan Bastinac, Josh Walker and Jarrad Jansen – are running around in the twos.
A winning NEAFL team is good for the club as it keeps morale up and means there’s competition for spots, which is healthy and should push the players to improve. Games will be earned, not gifted under Fagan.
On-field leadership has been sorely lacking for Brisbane, and Leppitsch event noted it wasn’t a “Melbourne Cup field” to choose from.
This year the leaders are standing tall, led by captain Dayne Beams and his vice, Tom Rockliff, who leads the AFL in clearances. Stefan Martin, Dayne Zorko, Mitch Robinson, Daniel Rich and Harris Andrews have also been consistent.
There’s a long way to go for Brisbane in their climb back to relevancy but the coach is already stamping his mark on the team.
With his dinner plan in mind, Chris Fagan’s setting the Lions’ table so the club can feast once again.